BEIJING – China urged the International Criminal Court to rethink its arrest warrant for Sudan's president Tuesday in a sign of Beijing's skittishness over its already difficult relationship with the African country.
China, which buys two-thirds of Sudan's petroleum exports, has been repeatedly criticized for not using its economic leverage to apply more pressure on the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to end a civil war in his country's Darfur region.
The issue has been particularly thorny ahead of next month's Olympic Games — which some activists have used to turn the spotlight on Beijing's Africa policy — forcing the Chinese government to balance its desire to be seen as a responsible global power with its need for resources to fuel its booming economy.
"China expresses great concern and worry about the ICC's prosecutor's accusation against Sudanese leaders," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular media briefing. "The ICC's move should be conducive to safeguarding the stability of Sudan's situation and the proper resolution for the Darfur region rather than the contrary."
On Monday, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo filed 10 charges against al-Bashir, accusing his government of waging a campaign of genocide and rape in Darfur.
Although the Sudanese president is unlikely to face trial any time soon, his U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed, indicated that he would draw on backing from Beijing — one of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members with veto power — to help push back against the international court.
When asked by reporters whether China would use its position on the council block the charges, Liu said the matter would be discussed with other members but "as to what results would be reached after that consultation, I cannot speculate."
Though Sudan has denounced the indictment and says it will ignore any arrest order, one lawmaker said his government could no longer guarantee the safety of U.N. staff in Darfur, where an international peacekeeping force is deployed to protect civilians in a conflict that the U.N. says has claimed 300,000 lives and driven 2.5 million people from their homes.
Beijing also has peacekeepers in Sudan — a fresh contingent of engineers leaves China Wednesday — as well as a bevy of oil, construction and other companies doing business. Liu said he was not concerned for their safety.
The episode is another reminder of China's outsized presence in Africa — one that has brought it criticism from Western governments, interest groups and some African elite for supporting corrupt regimes. Last week, China helped scupper a U.N. resolution to sanction another African partner, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, over election violence.
Chinese trade with Africa ballooned to $55.5 billion in 2006, up more than fivefold from 2000. Beijing projects that it will reach $100 billion by 2020. Chinese investment has been poured into roads, copper mines and oil fields, helping to boost African economies and gain resources and new markets for the Chinese economy.
Sudan has been a flashpoint, with activist groups saying China needs to use its close diplomatic and economic ties to press for an end to the bloodshed. One group, backed by Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, has warned Beijing its Olympics could become known as the genocide games if it does not do more.
As the pressure mounted last year, China took credit for persuading al-Bashir to agree to a U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur. China also announced it would send an additional $10 million in humanitarian aid and provide military engineers to dig wells and make other preparations for the force. With Wednesday's deployment, Liu said China would have 315 peacekeepers in Sudan.
"On one hand, China wants to play a constructive role in solving the Darfur issue. On the other hand, it would like to maintain the friendly relations with Sudan," said Jin Linbo, a senior fellow at the China Institute for International Studies.
But in the long-run, Jin said China will have to take into consideration the political and legal opinions of the international community while planning its policies on Africa.
"China will have to find a compromise," he said.
Besides buying Sudan's oil, energy-hungry China also has refineries, a pipeline and joint exploration projects there. Beijing has also sold weapons to the Khartoum regime, which is accused of backing militias against Darfur rebels.
A BBC documentary that aired Monday alleged that China provides military trucks and trains pilots to fly Chinese jets in Darfur, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
Liu dismissed the report as "unfair and incorrect."
"China always has adopted a responsible attitude toward arms exports and strictly manages that in line with international obligations and domestic laws and regulations and never sells in areas in which arms embargoes are imposed by the U.N. Security Council," Liu said.